This is a question I was asked recently in the context of outreach work (I answered yes), but it applies across the board. For those climbing the academic ladder specifically, it perhaps amounts to ‘does anything other than research count?’ I would again say yes. So what follows are some thoughts on career progression provoked by a variety of recent conversations concerning different levels of seniority.
Let’s start with outreach, a topic that many students and postdocs get involved with out of sheer love for the subject, but then start to worry it will make them look as if they’re not serious about research. Unfortunately there are PIs who will reinforce this anxiety, wishing their team to be, metaphorically, chained to the bench/computer or whatever. Nevertheless, this position should be resisted. I have written before about a couple of recently-appointed lecturers who were told that their outreach activities were viewed very positively when they were being considered for posts. I believe outreach develops some of those transferable skills so valued by employers outside higher education but perhaps less visibly so by a fraction of my research colleagues. Being able to explain your work simply to the public ought to be part of research training and, it should be remembered, should also stand you in good stead at any future academic interviews when, let’s face it, those who interrogate you may not themselves be specialists in your immediate field.
Later on in your career outreach may retain an anxious question mark in your mind, but in all probability there will be other issues that niggle or leap out at you at you as you contemplate your CV. This is where your university’s mind set, culture and promotion criteria become important. These are issues Cambridge’s Gender Equality Group has been wrestling with – we’ve been looking at the outcomes of various consultation exercises carried out across the university – so that we can make appropriate recommendations, although these issues are undoubtedly not gender specific.
One trouble is that what a department may want of individuals and what is in the individual’s best interests given the academic structures may be poles apart. A department may think it is totally splendid if one of their staff members devotes much time to going into local schools, or mentoring its junior staff, overhauling practical classes or sitting on every committee going and doing the donkey work. But the individual has to determine whether such a path of devoted service is the optimum course of action for them. What is ‘optimum’ of course is not an absolute. It will depend on many factors including individual taste and degree of ambition. Regrettably, though, the selfish in the department may decide optimum for them means being an awkward cuss, refusing to sit on any committee whatsoever and neglecting to set the promised exam questions. The argument that I have heard used, that ‘the best thing I can do for my department is to concentrate on my research’ and by implication therefore, not waste time on the fripperies of life that are teaching and service to the greater good, needs to be stamped on swiftly.
The issue is likely to become gender-specific when it is a question of higher-level committee work; this was the context of the recent discussion with which I was involved. How do you demonstrate your leadership potential to the powers that be if you have never been exposed to and involved in decision-making processes at departmental or above level, or if you have never served on some national committee of significance such as for a Research Council or a professional membership body? These things take time and energy, taking you away from your research group and grant-writing activities. There is an interesting balancing act to be had, with probably no one obviously to hand to proffer advice either as to which committees may provide useful experience or how many is wise.
For women there are even more twists. You may be asked to join a committee to make up numbers, to fill some target and/or to make the organisation look good. Such a request may be intensely irritating, that sense of only being asked because you are a woman not because those doing the asking actually have any confidence in your abilities. Nevertheless, you shouldn’t necessarily reject the invitation out of hand. It may provide just the impetus you need to raise your profile and enable you to try out your wings in a new sphere. On the other hand it may equally be a deadly dull, useless sort of committee where you are merely expected to be a speechless makeweight. The wise thing to do when a request comes your way is to ask around so that you can establish which of those two scenarios apply.
So far so good. But of course if your organisation is actively seeking to fill its committees with a moderately respectable number of women, you may not simply get one invite – particularly if you turn out to be a half-way decent committee member. You may suddenly find there is a deluge of requests. Then it gets difficult: which to accept? Perhaps the first one that came along wasn’t the most interesting or desirable one but you don’t want to turn down the others so you have to work out how to extract yourself gracefully….again, seeking advice would be wise. A thoughtful Head of Department or equivalent, ought to be willing (but won’t necessarily be) to engage in this debate.
The alternative scenario is an organisation where little thought is given to the composition of the committee, or that many of them are filled ex officio by, for example, heads of institution who all just happen to be male. I hear tales in Cambridge of how our 30-strong Estates Management Committee was, for just that reason in the not too distant past, entirely male but apparently is so no more. In any organisation where gender composition is ignored, as I alluded to earlier the women may never get an opportunity to demonstrate their skills. This oversight happens all too often but should be a source of significant worry to the leadership and a prompt to change their processes.
Career progression should be on the minds of the leadership as it thinks about succession planning and the pipeline all along the route. Having the interests of all members of the organisation at heart as committees are filled should be a no-brainer, but it isn’t necessarily the way it pans out. A committee on committees should consider which committees are good places to bring on young talent, whatever their gender, to make sure that the less obvious names are considered and not just the usual suspects. Equally, for those contemplating their CVs, if there are obvious gaps beyond research excellence they should take note. Research excellence is all very well and may be a sine qua non when it comes to promotion, but it ought to be a case of ‘necessary but not sufficient’, as the mathematicians say.
So, what looks good on that CV beyond the hard-hitting papers and the grant income? A little bit of everything is probably the right answer. Remember if you aspire to be a leader of some sort ultimately, you must not simply keep your head down and avoid all committee work or you are hiding your light under a bushel and no one will notice what you’re doing.